Ambivalence Theory


‘According to this concept of humour, our laughter is the symptom of an internal battle between opposing emotions. In 1653 Louis Joubert sowed the seeds of this theory when he proposed that comic laughter is an emotion located in the heart. When we experience a conflict between joy and sadness, the heart shakes the diaphragm, resulting in laughter.

A century or so later James Beattie wrote that laughter is evoked by ‘an opposition of suitableness and unsuitableness.’ William Hazlitt also contributed to this school of thought, noting in 1819 that ‘the jostling of one feeling against another’ was an essential element of the comical.

In recent years the platform for this debate has been increasingly philosophical rather than psychological – less emphasis on shaky diaphragms and even shakier anatomical knowledge – but for all these theorists, laughter is an outward sign of an inward conflict.

Psychologist J. Y. T. Greig asserts that all humour is based on a conflict between love and fear, while George Milner suggests that the clash between culture and nature is to blame. […]

“Cleanliness is next to impossible.”
– Audrey Austin

According to ambivalence theorists, laughter is essentially a wobble of uncertainty – even, perhaps, a snort of embarrassment, of not knowing how to react.

It’s a nice theory, but its a bit sweeping. For a start, not every ‘jostling of one feeling against another’ results in humour – far from it. Ambivalence about such existential oppositions as love and fear is more likely to result in uncertainty, brow-furrowing, and panic attacks, even though joking about it might help to diminish the angst. You could also argue that the tension between nature and culture defines the human condition, and just the psychology of humour.

As human beings, we are essentially apes aspiring to the condition of angels. The results of this struggle seldom rise above the farcical. So, in effect, all the ambivalence theory tells us is what we think, therefore we laugh.’

– Carr J., Greeves L. 2006. The Naked Jape – Uncovering The Hidden World Of Jokes London, Great Britain: Penguin Books (2007) p. 94-95

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